OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — The fans cheered Peter Sagan outside the Bora-Hansgrohe bus as if he was the winner Sunday at Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Sagan, however, was far from the rider that blew the doors off the peloton in 2016 to claim his first monument in dramatic fashion. The three-time world champion could follow the wheels Sunday and he kicked to 11th out of the elite finishing group, but he was not among the day’s main protagonists.
“I don’t think so,” Sagan said when asked if he was the same rider as 2016. “The race style was a lot of difference from past years. For sure, I am not like I was three years ago.”
Sunday’s Ronde was a hard-fought battle that saw riders such as Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) try in vain to blow up the race. Sagan was following wheels and saving his matches for the finale, but Alberto Bettiol (EF-Education First) surprised the favorites with a solo attack on the final passage up Oude Kwaremont.
“It was a very hard race. I think Bettiol took all the chances, and he surprised everybody how strong he is,” Sagan said. “Van der Poel and Greg [van Avermaet] were also very strong today, but in the end, nobody did a big difference.”
Insiders at Bora-Hansgrohe said Sagan’s illness at a Sierra Nevada altitude training camp ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico set back his preparation for the classics.
After kicking to fourth at Milano-Sanremo, however, the team was hopeful he’d be hitting full cylinders at the important Flemish classics. Sagan was a little off his best at E3 BinckBank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem, and so far, counts on one victory this season and no podiums during the major one-days.
“We are chasing those results and that good feeling. I saw a good Peter, and he was better at the end of the race than at the middle,” said Sagan trainer Patxi Vila. “I think it’s coming, but still not at the top.”
Sunday’s race saw a non-threatening breakaway go clear early, so that meant the favorites could set their own pace in the first half of the race. Fresh legs saw the race blow up at the Muur de Kamelmuur with about 100km, and Sagan was in the promising front group that saw many of the big hitters riding away.
“It was a strange race,” said Bora-Hansgrohe’s Daniel Oss. “After the Muur, there was a small group and we tried to cover a lot of attacks, and maybe to anticipate the group. The speed was so high and the power was so hard. Everyone was tired and on the limit. I saw a lot of tired faces.”
Even a slightly sub-par Sagan is still a very good Sagan. When the bunch came back together heading into the final loop, his rivals tried in vain to rip up the race with big accelerations on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs. Sagan hung on and roared into the Oudenaarde with the front pack fighting for leftovers behind Bettiol.
“There was not a lot of cooperation,” Sagan said. “There was a little bit of headwind, and everybody just stayed on the wheel. There were a lot of riders, and when somebody attacked, there was someone always to close the gaps.”
Sagan now looks ahead to Paris-Roubaix, which he won with trademark panache last year. Twelve months ago, critics were writing off Sagan, only to see him bounce back and deliver the big win.
Could the script be following a similar storyline? And then there’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which Sagan will be racing for the first time this spring.
“Still my campaign here in Belgium, I am very confident I can get better,” Sagan said. “I think it is coming, but we will see. If nothing bad happens, we are looking forward.”